For the most part, the good-effort Bruins showed up against Oregon State last night, and that fairly good effort was more than enough to put away a relatively untalented Beavers team 82-73. The final score wasn't even a particularly good indication of how uncompetitive it was when the Bruins were trying hard -- at one point in the second half, the UCLA lead stretched to 18, and the Bruins led for all but a minute of the game.
The win was built in large part on the defensive play of Aaron Holiday and the offensive play of Isaac Hamilton. Holiday absolutely hounded Gary Payton II most of the night, forcing him into early foul trouble and then limiting him to one of his worst performances at Oregon State. Payton finished with 17 points, but most of those points came when the game was no longer in doubt after UCLA built a double-digit lead int he second half. Holiday also played with control and poise on the offensive end, and hit one of the biggest shots of the game, a three-pointer to stretch the lead to six at 49-43 right after Oregon State made a run. Like some of the better defenders in the Howland era ( Arron Afflalo, Russell Westbrook, even Malcolm Lee), his confidence on offense seems to build when he's completely owning his man on the other end.
Hamilton, though, might be the biggest revelation of the season right now. He's been UCLA's most consistent offensive player basically since he stopped being UCLA's least consistent. His mid-range game has become absolutely deadly, and he threw in a dizzying array of floaters and pull-ups on Wednesday to finish with 25 points. Despite being mostly a jump shooter, Hamilton is hitting 49% from the floor on fairly high volume (13.1 shots per game) and 38% from three. For contrast, UCLA's other high volume shooter, Bryce Alford, is shooting 39% on 13.3 shots per game and 36% from three. Hamilton's defense wasn't great, but he showed better effort than he has recently and even fought over a couple of screens. The big knock from this game was his weak handle -- he turned the ball over four times, and just about every time came off the dribble when he just didn't control the ball well.
The big key in this one, again, was the improved effort and focus, and that translated on both ends of the floor. On offense, there was one possession around the 10-minute mark that was perfectly indicative of that focus, with UCLA passing the ball around the perimeter on the secondary break, with no one willing to take a contested jumper until Alford found Hamilton for a wide open mid-range shot. While this game was competitive (through the first half and into the second half), UCLA played a generally unselfish brand of basketball, which was good to see.
Defensively, UCLA did indeed show much better effort and focus than it did against USC last week. Probably the most interesting thing about this game was how obviously Steve Alford was emphasizing defense with select players. Noah Allen moved ahead of Prince Ali in the rotation, and Gyorgy Goloman moved ahead of Jonah Bolden in the rotation as well. To their (and Alford's) credit, Allen and Goloman both brought very good effort to the floor and it certainly helped to keep the defensive energy up. Allen had one bad offensive sequence where he attempted an entry pass from much too far away that led to a run out, but he also hit a big three. Goloman played solid defense and facilitated well on offense, even though he didn't contribute much in the stat line.
The hope is, though, that UCLA doesn't take from this game that Allen and Goloman are suddenly better and more talented players than Ali and Bolden. To be clear, we love the idea of using the bench as a motivational tool, and if Ali and Bolden were identified as two guys who absolutely need to have their heads screwed on a little tighter, than by all means, use this game as a teaching moment. But those two players are significantly more talented than Allen and Goloman, and the more they play, the more likely they are to improve and climb to their considerable upside.
There's also a risk of players getting demoralized when, again, the emphasis appeared to be selective. In this game, there were two players who pretty obviously struggled defensively, in Tony Parker and Bryce Alford. Parker seemed to have his minutes cut a little bit when his effort flagged, and he finished with 26 minutes, but Alford, who stood out for his poor defensive effort in this game, played a team-high 37 minutes. As we said earlier this year, if this team is to reach its potential, Bryce has to show the leadership to give good defensive effort every game, and if he doesn't, the team won't. To build on that, if the coach then uses the bench as a discipline tool with players who don't give effort on defense (which we completely support), but doesn't use that same discipline tool on Alford, who gave really poor effort on defense on Wednesday in both the half court and transition, then there's potential for players getting demoralized and checking out.
Alford didn't shoot the ball well in this one, but he did produce during the offensive sequence that basically sealed the game, scoring seven points in two minutes to lift the lead from 56-48 to 63-50 with 8:23 to go. He took a team-high 15 shots, though, and given how efficient a few other players were, we would have liked to see him emphasize facilitating more.
Thomas Welsh probably didn't get the ball as much as he should have, as there was a pretty considerable mismatch on the interior. Welsh was able to hit the offensive glass for some key rebounds at times, and finished with a double-double, but when your 7-footer finishes with 4-of-4 shooting and ten points, it should be pretty clear that he needed to get the ball more.
This was a sneakily big win for the Bruins, who desperately needed to avoid a road sweep this week to keep any realistic hope of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid alive. Now, UCLA has an opportunity to earn Steve Alford's first road sweep at UCLA on Saturday against an Oregon team that's probably a firm cut above Oregon State in terms of talent and athleticism. If UCLA brings the same effort that the Bruins brought against Oregon State, it should be a very competitive game, and the Bruins should have a good chance of winning. But right now, with a third of the conference season over, we still have no idea what version of UCLA will show up on any given night.